Persevering even after his ashamed wife and mother left him, Arunachalam Muruganantham is Menstrual Man – the amateur inventor whose low-cost sanitary towel production is changing the lives of thousands of Indian women
While the image of the misunderstood artist is a well-established trope, we tend to overlook society’s, sometimes harsh, treatment of innovative designers. The reality is they’re often more ostracised, for their work challenges the values and day to day activities of the very people it seeks to help. The radical designer’s efforts to provide solutions are, all too frequently, misread as attempts to disturb the peace.
Such was the story for the Indian husband, Arunachalam Muruganantham, who tried to provide safe sanitary products for his wife, in a country where only 12 per cent of women use pads. Despite the chivalrous sincerity of his intentions, he found himself pushed to the fringe of his community for years. Through dogged perseverance he’s now set to revolutionise women’s health and economic fortunes across the world’s developing nations.
Muruganantham’s tale began in 1998, when he realised his new wife hiding something from him. He was shocked to uncover a collection of rags - ‘nasty cloths’ - she was using while menstruating. But when he went to buy her a normal cotton pad, he was further alarmed by its cost, at around 40 times the trading value of the raw material. With the couple barely able to afford food at the time, he suddenly recognised the severe economic predicament. He was convinced that even without a design education he could create a cheaper alternative.
As Muruganantham started researching, he began to fully appreciate the impact of the taboos that encircle menstruation in India. Menstruating Women aren’t allowed in public places, to cook or even to go near water supplies. The topic’s forbidden status has led to a lack of sexual education - approximately 70 per cent of reproductive diseases in India are caused by poor menstrual hygiene. Women are known to use sawdust, sand and ash as other alternatives to unaffordable sanitary products.
Although he was able to fabricate a prototype fairly quickly, Muruganantham couldn’t have imagined the development process that lay before him. After realising that his wife alone could not provide sufficient feedback - he didn’t know periods were only monthly events - he looked for additional test volunteers. However, when he failed to convince even a group of medical students to properly assist him, he decided the answer was to test his design himself. With a punctured football bladder to serve as his analogue uterus, ‘I became the man who wore a sanitary pad’, he says.
A former classmate, a butcher, provided Muruganantham with goat’s blood to fill the bladder, which he wore day to day under his normal clothes to gather data on absorbency rates. The unusual behaviour was soon noticed. When people saw him washing his bloodied clothes at the local well, the whole village concluded he had contracted a sexual disease.
The negative attention quickly became too much for Muruganantham’s wife - ‘you see God’s sense of humour’, he says in the documentary, ‘I’d started the research for my wife and after 18 months she left me!’ Not long after, his mother decided to leave too. Both women were unable to appreciate his grand vision for fear of social exclusion. In time, the rest of the community turned against him too - ultimately, he only avoided being chained upside down to be ‘healed’ by the local soothsayer by agreeing to leave the town.
Undeterred, Muruganantham worked for another four and a half years to create a low-cost system for the production of sanitary towels. Simplicity is central to the four-stage design, both to minimise production expense and to create a user-friendly technology. Muruganantham wasn’t interested in patenting the design for personal profit, but wanted to use it to stimulate thousands of small companies. He argues big business is a parasite on new ideas, and advocates a far gentler approach saying ‘A butterfly can suck honey from the flower without damaging it’.
Following a slow start, the self-taught designer is making rapid progress on his machine’s sustainable rollout. Not only are his pads sold for almost half the price he initially paid for his wife’s, the new companies they create are operated exclusively by women from the local community producing pads for their neighbours and friends. Each machines generates a micro-economy, creating permanent jobs for 10 women and serving the needs of 3,000 while every company is supported to design a unique brand and packaging for their pads. By establishing these sororal networks, customers are more comfortable seeking information on how to use the products.
It came as a bitter blow for Muruganantham that the Indian government made no attempt to integrate his expanding project into their new initiative to distribute subsidised sanitary products. Nevertheless, beyond the ever-growing sales figures, he’s found more personal validation for his work’s social acceptance - his estranged wife’s return. After leaving him for shame, Shanthi has become a key part of Muruganantham’s educational initiative in their local community. ‘Now they come and talk to me,’ she says, ‘they ask questions and they also get sanitary napkins to try them. They have all changed a lot in the village.’
Reflecting on the couple’s tumultuous history, it’s tempting to fantasise about a liberated world in which designers wouldn’t have to battle social expectations. But constraints are what inspire true radicals, and the frustration of being misunderstood is what stirs their perseverance. While formal design education busies itself with fostering ingenuity, we must remember there is at times a more important trait to the successful designer - patience.